By Jack Frech

A few months back, a “Black Lives Matter” sign was defaced here in Athens, Ohio. It reminded me just how deeply racism is ingrained in our society. It is a harsh reality that has been pushed to the forefront by the now finally documented killing of young African-American men by law enforcement.

But equally tragic are the many ways that our racism has manifested itself that are less obvious. African-Americans have a much higher infant mortality rate, and a higher incidence of other serious health issues. They have worse education outcomes. They have a much higher unemployment rate. All issues closely related to poverty.

It does not take a degree in sociology to know that hundreds of years of racism have placed African-Americans at a great disadvantage in our wage economy. It should be no surprise to learn that they are more likely to be poor and also over represented in our public assistance programs.

It isn’t acceptable to be openly racist these days. We talk a good game. We have our first black president. So why do these issues persist? We have shifted our prejudice from people of color to poor people in general. That seems to be perfectly acceptable.  Today we can attack poor welfare recipients with language that would not be acceptable about any race.

While it is true that most welfare recipients are white, African-Americans constitute a majority of those on assistance in the urban areas of Ohio.

In the past several years, thousands of families and individuals in Ohio have been cut off assistance or suffered reduced benefits.

Reductions in cash assistance and Food Stamps in Lucas County since 2011 have resulted in a loss of annual benefits of roughly $28 million. The annual losses for Cuyahoga County, $73 million, Franklin County, $81 million. Hamilton County, $57 million, Montgomery County, $37 million.  The statewide total annual loss of benefits is over $730 million. That is much more serious when you consider that these losses are absorbed by the poorest families and communities in the county.

These cuts came as a result of decisions made at the federal and state levels of government and with support from both political parties. These poor families are homeless or doubled and tripled up in housing. They struggle to find food while food pantries are overwhelmed. Nearly one in four Food Stamp households have no cash income. Children are traumatized. Just ask their teachers.

I directed the welfare office in Athens County for over thirty years. Welfare does not cause character flaws. People get hurt or sick, get laid off or make mistakes. There aren’t enough jobs. Most new jobs don’t pay a living wage. Poor people have very limited transportation. And yes, we are still racist, sexist, ageist and all those other prejudices that hinder success in the wage economy. So the attacks on the safety net programs at the hands of both political parties perpetuate and exacerbate the struggles of people of color.

We will never succeed in bringing down the infant mortality rate when mothers and children have inadequate diets and unsafe housing. We won’t put a dent in our drug and mental health issues when those in counselling have no food or place to live. Education programs will fail when children are hungry and stressed. Our children suffer from the trauma being inflicted as official government policy. And in Ohio African-Americans and Latinos will suffer a disproportionate share.

I can’t tell you how often I was approached by well-meaning journalists from the cities who wanted to do stories about poverty in Athens because we could help find poor white families. They were quite open about their feeling that their audience would be more sympathetic than they would be to a family of color.

The racial consequences of our welfare prejudice is real. This isn’t as easy to capture on camera but Black Lives are being lost just the same.

We must speak out and stop this systemic attack.

Jack Frech
Retired Director Athens County Job and Family Services Department
Athens, Ohio